Don’t Make It Difficult
Although it has been several years since I stopped going to church and started being the church, I do keep tabs on what is going on in the culture of the institution by reading books, listening to preachers on the radio, reading blogs, checking out websites, and the occasional conversation with some friends from my old stomping grounds. Today, I visited the website of The Church at Whistling Pines (NorthPointe 2.0) and listened to a sermon called, “Don’t Make It Difficult,” by Shawn McCracken, the Lead Team Pastor and lead elder there. As with most sermons, it was a mix of truth and error. Unfortunately for McCracken, the byline and mission of WhatGodDoes is “clearing away misconceptions,” which is exactly what I plan to do with his sermon. I encourage you to first listen to the sermon before you continue reading.
The Heavy Yoke
The main problem McCracken seeks to resolve in his sermon is how we, as believers, put a yoke around the necks of people who do not know Jesus. He refers to Acts 15 for an example of a heavy yoke being wrongfully placed on the Gentiles and how the Gentiles came to be relieved of it. Believers can benefit from reading about how the situation was handled, although many of us tend to erroneously think the situation was handled perfectly.
Conflict and Resolution
Acts 15 describes a conflict that broke out among the Pharisee believers and Gentile believers of Antioch. The Pharisees said Gentiles were required to be circumcised and to keep the laws of Moses in order to be saved. Delegates were sent from Antioch to consult with believers in Jerusalem on the matter. During the meeting, the Pharisees, Peter, Paul, Barnabus, James, and others all had their say, and then the final decision was recorded in a letter, which was received with enthusiasm by the church in Antioch. The letter included this statement:
You are to abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality. You will do well to avoid these things.
Did the Early Church Return to a Covenant of the Law?
What is this? Is it some sort of compromise between grace and law? It sure looks like a form of law to me, because the focus is on what NOT to do. Paul, who did not dispute the contents of this letter, later circumcised Timothy. Paul shaved his head and participated in sacrificial ceremonies (in compliance with the law, Numbers 6:18, after the covenant of grace had already been established). Apparently, old habits die hard. A covenant of grace for a people who lived, ate, and breathed the law from birth until death for about 2,000 years was a radical new idea.
The Covenant of Grace Trumps the Letter to Believers in Antioch
Paul eventually distanced himself from this letter and encouraged others to distance themselves from the covenant of the law, as is evidenced by his recommendation to the believers in Corinth to “eat whatever is sold in the meat markets,” as well as his rebuke of Peter, who stopped having meals with Gentiles when Jews were around. Paul writes,
If thou, being a Jew, in the manner of the nations dost live, and not in the manner of the Jews, how the nations dost thou compel to Judaize? We by nature Jews, and not sinners of the nations, having known also that a man is not declared righteous by works of law, if not through the faith of Jesus Christ, also we in Christ Jesus did believe, that we might be declared righteous by the faith of Christ, and not by works of law, wherefore declared righteous by works of law shall be no flesh. And if, seeking to be declared righteous in Christ, we ourselves also were found sinners, is then Christ a ministrant of sin? Let it not be! For if the things I threw down, these again I build up, a transgressor I set myself forth, for I through law, did die, that to God I may live…
Paul’s wordy statement is more succinctly explained in Expositor’s Greek Testament:
So argues the Apostle as he turns to his own life for an illustration of the incompatibility of allegiance to Christ with the continued supremacy of the Law.
McCracken, like Paul, emphasized the contrast between law and grace in his sermon, saying,
Our message is not circumcision but reconciliation…
But on the outset, we cannot be telling them what to be changing before they come to Christ, it is up to Jesus to change them…
Relationship with God produces holiness. Man’s imposing of the law never produces holiness…
So, what can we learn from all of this? The believers in Antioch and Jerusalem didn’t handle the situation perfectly, but here’s what they got right:
- They talked about it.
- They sharply disputed.
- They debated.
- Both sides of the argument were represented.
- The conflict was not hidden.
Clearing Away Misconceptions
In the introduction to this blog post, I wrote:
The main problem McCracken seeks to resolve in his sermon is how we, as believers, put a yoke around the necks of people who do not know Jesus. He refers to Acts 15 for an example of a heavy yoke being wrongfully placed on the Gentiles and how the Gentiles came to be relieved of it.
If we want to learn about how believers put a yoke around the necks of people who do not know Jesus, then why are we referencing Acts 15? The Gentiles in Antioch don’t fit the description. They were believers. They knew Jesus. They were called “brothers” (adelphos) throughout the text. Strong’s defines adelphos as “a brother, member of the same religious community, especially a fellow-Christian.”
Ironically, the main problem the Spirit of God seeks to resolve through McCracken’s sermon, the main subject the Spirit of God seeks to introduce, finds its way to the surface, despite McCracken’s intended subject. I am continually amazed at how surreptitiously and brilliantly the Spirit of God speaks through the lips of those who reject the very ideas the Spirit communicates through them. God is an Expository Ninja.
What is the problem the Spirit of God seeks to resolve?
In Acts 15, a group of believers who did not yet have an accurate understanding of grace wrongfully placed a heavy yoke (the idea of earning salvation by keeping rules) on the Gentiles believers. The apostle Peter defines the spiritual condition of the Gentiles:
God, who knows the heart, showed that he accepted them by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as he did to us. He did not discriminate between us and them, for he purified their hearts by faith. Now then, why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of Gentiles a yoke that neither we nor our ancestors have been able to bear? No! We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are.
If the Jewish believers truly understood that Gentile believers were, in every way, equal to the themselves, then what was all this nonsense about having an official meeting, drawing up an official letter, and sending the letter by way of official representatives with official instructions for the Gentile believers in Antioch? If God”did not discriminate between” Gentile believers and Jewish believers, as Peter said, and if God “purified their hearts by faith,” what purpose does the first Christian council in Jerusalem in a.d. 48 serve?
Read between the lines.
The letter effectively demonstrates several disturbing trends that have persisted among believers for almost 2,000 years.
You can read about the disturbing trends or “heavy yoke” and more in the next blog post…
Related blog posts: Reign of God / Reign of Humanity, Rebranding Religion, Every Day Easter, On Abortion, Homosexuality, and Obama, Orthotomeo (aka, Rightly Dividing), Whistling Pines’ Barbie God: A Response from a Believer Who Has a Voice, 5 Ways to Build the Church of Your Dreams & 5 Ways to Destroy It, Abundant Life, The Light of Scrutiny, The Church Has Left the Building, You Can’t Kill God’s Idea, and Aion, The Eternal Torment Four-Letter-Word